Artist Jenifer Wofford once was given a large space to work in, but she shared that space with her students.  This meant anyone could come in at any time, see what she was doing.  Jenifer ended up liking doing her work in this atmosphere. “I have a tendency to be lazy,” she said, and having people drift in and out of the room kept her in check.  She said she got more work done than she did in a private studio.

But more that this, she liked the buzz of the activity of people coming in at any time, unannounced.  She liked the discussions that arose around art, the commentary on works-in-progress—that perhaps this combination of elements made her work better than it could’ve been had she been given a private studio to work in.

That made me wonder about the way I do my own work, and if my insistence on isolation is really always the way to work all the time.  What if I worked in a room with others?  How might that interaction with others, or simply the presence of others, affect my work?  Could others’ thoughts, their sounds, their breathing help shape a poem or a story or give sound to an idea? Would it become something I couldn’t have done in isolation?

And finally:  Does writing have to be so lonely?

My short story, “Kite,” has just appeared this week in The Boiler: A Journal of New Literature.  A kite, a girl, a telenovela, UFOs, soccer, and yes, there’s even a cockroach in it.  You can read it here.


Some of my abandoned stories.

I usually give up on my work.  Most stories I’ve written, there comes a point where the story stumps me and I quit, abandon it.  I put all the drafts, notes, diagrams, and drawings into a folder, shut it and put it on the stack of other abandoned stories.  Then I move on, hoping the next story works out.  For a while, it does work out—writing seems to happen on its own, words know where to go.  The writing feels like reading—I’m writing to find out what happens next—which is my favorite place to be.  Inevitably, I hit that wall again.  And I look at the file folders of abandoned stories and feel a kind of panic.  I begin thinking like someone trying to save her sixth marriage (or so I imagine):  No matter what, I’m not leaving this story.  I don’t care how awful this story is, I will make it work.  And so with that in my head like a mantra, I hammer on, pounding the poor would-be story to death.

The thing I forget in those moments is that I usually do go back to those abandoned stories.  I go back sometimes weeks later, and sometimes years later.  The character’s voice returns to my head, or I find out from either life or from another story what needs to happen, and I return. Sometimes I go back and leave them several times until the stories finally feel right, completed.  This doesn’t happen with every abandoned story—just ones that absolutely need to be told.

This isn’t a failure.  It has taken me years to realize and accept that giving up on a story is the way that I work.  It has to happen that way, or else the stories wouldn’t happen at all.  The problem is that I’ve kept an image in my head of how writers should write—and therefore an ideal way of how I should work.

I first met multi-media artist Jenifer Wofford in Prague when I was at that particular point of defeat.  I had returned from an Artist-in-Residence program in South Bohemia to research and finish a draft of a novel, and by the end of the residency, I felt like I’d failed at what I set out to do.  I had abandoned the novel, and though I’d moved on to work on other stories, I felt the weight of that failed novel in my gut—as well as literally in my bag.  Jenifer helped me drag the monster up all those flights of stairs to my room in the hotel where I was staying, and where she was working.  I apologized, as she took one end and I took the other, for the weight of research, books, paper drafts, and whatever else I thought I needed.

A few weeks ago, I saw Jenifer again, as she came to Seattle to participate in an excellent group show, War Baby/Love Child, at the Wing Luke Museum.  Among many other things, we talked about how we work.  I saw myself in her process, how she tends to work on several pieces at once—that is, beginning one, then leaving it, beginning another.  She leaves behind a lot of open doors.  She said that sometimes when she stops working on a piece and is at work on another, she learns something about the piece she left.  Then she can go back to it—and the first piece becomes something that it wouldn’t have been had she not abandoned it first.  Her work informs her work, setting off a sort of conversation between pieces of art.  For this to happen, it’s essential that the doors be open.

Now I think of my file folders as open doors, colorful doors that open into one another, whose inhabitants share secrets with each other—and occasionally with me.

My fiction teacher, Keith Maillard, told this story: When he was writing his novel Gloria, he would spend many hours lying on his bed in the middle of the afternoon, imagining his character Gloria’s bedroom.  In particular, he would imagine her closet hanger by hanger, shelf by shelf until he got it down to every single petticoat—until her closet became so real it wasn’t imagining anymore.  Then his wife came in and asked him what he was doing.

“I’m writing,” he said.

“No you’re not.  You’re sleeping.”

So much goes into a piece of art, be it a novel or a painting or music, that is not the act of doing the thing that people think you should be doing.  In my high school Creative Writing class, my friend Adam often got scolded for not freewriting a million words in 10 minutes, and for doodling when he should be making words.  But do we need to always be making words if we are writers?  Perhaps we could do with a little veering from our form, imagining or doodling the world we wish to enter—or perhaps leaving it altogether to watch a river of milky glacial water pour over the rocks.


My short story, “Vodník,” has come out in the summer edition of the Kenyon Review Online.  You can read it here.

I wrote part of this story while Artist-in-Residence at Milkwood International in the Czech Republic, and finished the story back in Seattle.  A grant from Artist Trust also helped in the making of this story.

art-and-social-change-flyerOn Sunday, May 19th in Portland, OR, I’ll be presenting my poems and joining a panel discussion about the role of art in activism. From the press release:

On Sunday, May 19th from 5:00-7:00 pm Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) presents an evening featuring artist stories and readings, discussion, and inspiration from the unique exhibit Particles on the Wall. This interdisciplinary exhibit explores elements of the nuclear age, science, and Hanford history. The exhibit, created by Washington based curators Nancy Dickeman, Dianne Dickeman and Steven Gilbert, interweaves visual art, poems, and science with history and memorabilia to address issues of radioactive contamination, nuclear weapons and technology in the Pacific Northwest, and their roles in the regional landscape as well as impacts on local and global communities. Oregon artists have now joined this important and timely exhibit currently showing at the Ecotrust Building in Portland, Oregon until June 14, 2013.

Join us in welcoming Particles on the Wall curators and contributing artists from Washington and Oregon to hear them speak about their work, tell their stories and read their poetry. Artist presentations will be followed by a discussion led by artist activists Renee Mitchell and Chisao Hata on the role of the artist in social change.

What: Art and Social Change Presentation, Readings and Discussion with Curators and Artists from Particles on the Wall

Where: Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center, Ecotrust Building (721 NW 9th Ave, Portland)

When: Sunday, May 19th, 5:00-7:00 pm

Participants include:

  • Exhibit co-founders and curators Nancy Dickeman and Dianne Dickeman
  • Contributing artists Anna Daedalus, Leah Stenson, Chelsea Bolan, Colleen Clement, Doug Gast (invited), and others
  • Grant High School Senior Twyla Malchow-Hay, winner of the Oregon PSR Greenfield Peace Writing Scholarship for her poem about Hanford
  • Moderated by Chisao Hata and Renee Mitchell

Sponsored by: Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility in collaboration with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders

 Particles on the Wall is dedicated to William Witherup, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility’s first Artist in Residence, who passed away in 2009.

“Particle and wave shimmered over the river stones.” ~ William Witherup 



Particles on the Wall makes its Oregon debut this Friday, May 3rd, at the Ecotrust Building in Portland.  It’s a scaled-down version of the Richland exhibit, so I’m honored that my poems made it in. Opening night features an awards ceremony for the 5th annual Greenfield Peace Writing Contest for Oregon high school students who wrote about why Hanford matters. There will also be food, music, and wine in the house—do come by if you are in the area.

The Columbia River, with Hanford over the bridge

Driving towards Hanford Nuclear Reservation from Seattle on some of the smaller highways, rolling green hills rise up around the Columbia River. Green because of spring, with patches of purple flowers, and I could forget that I was in Washington State, that somehow I’d been transported to a more arid Ireland.  Along this route there is a place where the river is so placid and wide it’s a lake rather than a river.  Along the way, there are small raised ridges in the river that mean dam—glass-smooth on one side, agitated on the other.  It’s hard to imagine what the river was like before its power was “harnessed,” though I’ve read many accounts of its pre-dammed vigor, its force of life.

Closer to Hanford, the landscape browns out a bit.  It looks more like a commonly known Eastern Washington: dry desert, sage, straggly trees that have not even budded yet, sand and rock.  Still, the green hills are in the distance, over the road and over the river, should one need to look at them for reassurance.

My friend and I stopped for a picnic lunch by the Columbia, in sight of a boat launch that seemed to be popular with the fishermen by the number of trucks with empty boat trailers.  We were across the bridge from the beginnings of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  Here, when water levels are high, muddy water covers the rocks—when the water drops, the mud dries, coating the rocks a cracked, parched white.  Here is where the wild onions grow, pushing up through sand and rock, their muscular, bright green tubes crowned with plum-colored buds, still in teardrop formation.

wild onions near Hanford

Wild onions near Hanford

I stepped through them carefully to wash my hands in the river.  I eyed Hanford to the east.  This isn’t Hanford water, is it?  I noted the flow of the river; the current was moving toward Hanford. I wondered about all the fishermen, none of whom I could see, but who were out somewhere on these waters, presumably catching fish.  I thought about swimming in the Columbia as a kid.  I thought about the hundreds of gallons (and counting) of radioactive waste leaking just over there.  Then I bent down to wash my hands.


I was still thinking of the leaking containers—as well as the government sequester that threatens Hanford clean-up efforts—when we walked into the Art Center, located on the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus.  In one corner I found Douglas Gast’s installation, 67 Are Confirmed Leakers (2008)—sixty seven (or so I assume; I didn’t count) small silver containers, glowing emerald from the inside.

We often associate “toxic” with the color green—at least I do, growing up with Mr. Yuk stickers all over the house. Green is also often used in comics for any gross—if not toxic—substance. Yet green is also a color that brings comfort and relief, means newness and rebirth, like sprouts in the garden after a long winter, or the hills nearby.  But what color is nuclear waste?

“Uncapped fuel stored underwater in K-East Basin,” US Department of Energy

The greenish color for all things radioactive may have come from Marie Curie, who noted that Radium glowed.  Nuclear waste can be in the form of a sludge (which is what is leaking now at Hanford), rods, or in the form of glass, in a process known as vitrification. The containers of Gast’s installation in fact reminded me of rounds of stained glass, which then made me think of the image I came across on the Hanford website (also included in the exhibit) of spent fuel rods. I found the image striking, beautiful as moldings of old buildings—just as I found Gast’s neat rounds of green beautiful—which is at odds about how I feel about Hanford and nuclear waste.

As a child, I dreamed about nuclear war.  I’m not sure why—perhaps it’s something passed on from my parents, who were children in the fifties and remember well the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. My dad was born just  three days after the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan, an event that seemed to frame his life, just as the Cold War framed the beginning of mine.

At the exhibition, I met my parents and my sister, who had driven down from Spokane. While we absorbed the art and read poems, scientific facts, and personal tales, my parents also shared their own stories.  They talked about bomb shelters.  As a kid, my dad didn’t have one; they were going to tough it out in the basement, which somehow made my dad feel, well, tough.  My mom said her family joked that her dad would forget the can opener, and they’d have no way to open all the canned food he meticulously stored.


It was a great honor for my two poems about fallout to share the walls with so many fantastic works of art.  I was struck by the fearlessness of these artists, and how their work manages to straddle the everyday and the surreal—such is life near the nuclear reservation. There were poems by Kathleen Flenniken, Washington State’s Poet Laureate, who grew up in Richland as a child of a Hanford worker. She later worked at Hanford herself as a civil engineer before turning to poetry. Her experiences surrounding a life both in and near Hanford are the subject of her amazing book, Plume.  Brooklyn artist (and Washington native) Eric LoPresti’s painting Flashhouse (2012) reflects the stark landscape surrounding Hanford and suggests houses near testing sights, used to ascertain the effects of a nuclear blast on a common home. Sherman Alexie’s “The Powwow at the End of the World,” made for a powerful end of the exhibition (or beginning, depending on which way you go).

T-shirt in the drawer of William Witherup’s desk

Poems by the late William Witherup, to whom the exhibit was dedicated, wove through all these works, a thread or undercurrent that pulled the exhibit together.  He lived downriver of Hanford much of his life, and in 2009 died of the leukemia he believed he had developed because of this.  His work focuses on the people living near, and especially downriver from, the nuclear reservation—and the effects that Hanford has had on these lives.

Anything nuclear still seems mysterious to me.  The more I learn, the more elusive it is.  Maybe it has to do with radiation being invisible, odorless, helpful, and harmful—indeed a mysterious entity that can take on many forms or no form at all.  Maybe it’s something in me that refuses to absorb the process of bomb-making.  Maybe it’s fear that keeps me from understanding.

But none of this keeps the city of Richland from embracing its atomic history.  Residents don’t seem to be afraid to be hemmed in by the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. Richland High School answers to “The Bombers”—and not that long ago, there was the Tri-City Atoms Northwest Baseball League. (This t-shirt was in one of  Bill Witherup’s desk drawers.)  Walking out of the exhibit, the car parked beside ours had the bumper sticker, “Radiate Peace.” And the brewery where we ended up boasted that the radioactive water is what makes their beer so potent.  It’s enough to get one to loosen up about the whole nuclear thing.  Even so, I was glad to begin the drive back west—to let the Hanford Nuclear Reservation go by, and to set my sights on the green hills in the distance.


Bess Lovejoy reads on March 12th (photo by Sean Bolan)

Finally! Bess Lovejoy’s book, Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, is coming out on Tuesday, March 12–and there’s going to be a big launch party at the Rendezvous Jewel Box Theater in Seattle. Not only will there be a reading and a book signing, but rumor has it that there will also be a guest skull or two. I can’t think of a better excuse to raise a glass. Na zdraví to Bess and to all those dead folks!

In the meantime, check out her article featured in The Stranger last week: “The Madam Who Turned to Stone.”


Two of my poems will be shown along with many other works about all things nuclear in the exhibit, Particles on the Wall.  If you happen to find yourself the vicinity of Hanford and the Tri-Cities, do pop in the WSU Art Center.  The exhibit is free, and runs through April 4th.

For more info: Particles on the Wall and WSU Art Center